New Arrivals: The Dark Knight Rises

“Bruce, why do we fall? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

At the dawn of “The Dark Knight Rises,” the third and final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, something; actually, just about everything is rotten in the state of Gotham City eight years after the events of the previous movie. Even though it is a time of peace; crime is basically non-existent thanks to the Dent Act, named for the crusading DA who was murdered trying to complete his mission for justice, this peace is fraudulent. Dent was not a hero who was betrayed and murdered by Batman; he was warped by the Joker into an avenging demon, who tried to murder Jim Gordon’s son in his delusional quest for revenge following Rachel Dawes’ murder. The only two people who know, Gordon and Bruce Wayne, are in different states of disrepair. Gordon’s guilt over lying about Dent’s fate is eating away at his previously ironclad decency. Wayne (Christian Bale), both physically and financially crippled, has become a Howard Hughes-esque recluse, closing himself off in the rebuilt Wayne Manor, with only the ever loyal Alfred (Michael Caine) and his grief over the death of Rachel keeping him company. Batman, for all intents and  purposes, is dead and buried.

But a plethora of unfinished business is coming toward Gotham. A mysterious, masked figure with a legion of followers named Bane (Tom Hardy) is heading toward Gotham to punish the city for years of decadence. His crew dismantle the plane they were being transported in, with ominous messages about the “rising fire.”

The final chapter in a trilogy or series is always the hardest to pull off. All of the story strands introduced by the creator that are woven into the work’s singular mythology have to be given some kind of resolution that makes venturing into this story worth it in the first place. You also have to accomplish two other very difficult things: make the whole piece stand on it’s own as a closed-off and complete piece of storytelling and also have distinct pieces within them that establish all the variations on the specific themes the writer or director wanted to explore. Two of my favorite series: HBO’s “The Wire” and J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter,” both accomplished this: each season of “The Wire” and each Potter book had their own unique qualities, telling their own distinctive stories while at the same time adding to the overall narrative.

Considering the immense difficulties that go into creating a final installment of the series, is “The Dark Knight Rises” a success? The answer is absolutely. Is it perfect? No, the plot suffers from some holes and incoherence. It doesn’t scale the heights of “The Dark Knight” but “Rises” is a flawed but ultimately triumphant final chapter in what will be remembered as the gold standard for comic book series on screen.

“Rises'” storytelling doesn’t have the daredevil agility that DK had; it is more like a lumbering, all-encompassing beast of a movie. As a result, it is a little messy, especially in the first hour. Nolan’s Achilles heel as a writer is still his unwieldy integration of exposition, and this movie is no exception, as the plot elements become a tangled traffic jam. We find out that before Bruce went into seclusion he lost a huge chunk of money on a clean energy project involving a fusion bomb housed underneath Gotham City, and the company needs the support of entrepreneur Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) to save itself from financial ruin. Meanwhile, a maid named Selena Kyle (Anne Hathaway) has broken into Bruce’s personal safe to steal the pearls his mother wore when she died and Bruce’s fingerprints. This cunning thief is revealed to be the ambiguous Catwoman, who gives Bruce’s fingerprints to men who work for Bane in exchange for having her criminal record wiped clean. Meanwhile (all these meanwhiles really exemplify what’s wrong with this movie’s setup), a young cop named John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an earnest idealist working with Gordon, unaware of his secret, who believes in the good of humanity, and thinks Batman will soon return to the city when he is once again needed. All of these story strands are introduced one right after the other, so we don’t have time to get acquainted with them. It isn’t until Bruce decides to leave his seclusion to retrieve his fingerprints from Selena and find out more about the mysterious Bane that the film begins to stabilize and get down to business.

But becoming Batman again isn’t easy. He is still wanted for the murder of Harvey Dent and Bruce is no longer the crusader he once was; a broken man can’t be the hero of Gotham, which Alfred, who has grown weary of Bruce’s mission, is quick to remind him. This is the first display of the film’s resonant emotional core. The scene where Alfred tearfully confesses his fears and anger over Bruce’s state of being is one of the most powerful in the series, thanks to the soulful and heartbreaking performance by Michael Caine.

As Bruce tries to pick up the pieces and become who he was once again, Bane moves in on Gotham to finish the work the League of Shadows and Ra’s Al Ghul started: destroy the city’s economy and punish the rich for their decadence. He does this with a raid on the stock market, where he makes millions of trades that leave Wayne Enterprises and Bruce completely broke, and cut Gotham off from the rest of the world, turning it into a fascist Hell on Earth.

One of the strengths of “Rises,” and the series itself, is its contemporary resonance with the world we live in today. Some have compared Bane’s plan and Selena’s threats of bringing down those who “lived so large for so long” to the Occupy movement, but this isn’t the case. This movie was written and being filmed before that movement even started, and its origin goes back further than random protesters in New York City. Nolan cited Charles Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities” as an influence on this film, and it definitely shows, with its cavalcade of characters and unflinching look at what happens when revolution spills over into fascism. Hardy as Bane has an impossible task; to take up the mantle left by Heath Ledger’s legendary portrayal of The Joker. While Hardy doesn’t scale those heights, he gives a menacing, scary and weirdly charismatic performance. With his massive body and a mask that covers most of his face that makes him sound like the PA announcer from Hell, Hardy channels Darth Vader and even Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Col. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now” and uses his body language and his eyes to find the dark soul of this character. The Joker stood for anarchy and chaos; Bane stands for punishment and control. That contrast is what sets this movie apart in the series.

If Bane represents Dickens’ portrayal of a society taking itself back, then Bruce is this story’s Sidney Carton; trying and failing to restore  meaning to his life. Batman is more than just a costume; he is a symbol, but Bruce has forgotten how to transcend the cape and the cowl; as a result his is punished severely by Bane.

Even though the script has its flaws, Nolan’s ever-increasing gifts for creating terror and spectacle on screen are on full-blast. This film has a weary, worn-out feel to it, thanks to the stunning, gritty cinematography of Wally Pfister, and the ferocious score by Hans Zimmer. We are a long way away from the choppy editing and flat staging of “Batman Begins;” the set-pieces and fight scenes are thrillingly coherent, letting scenes play out with very few cuts, showing that Nolan has finally become the virtuoso of large-scale filmmaking he had the potential to be.

But the core of this film is with the soul of Bruce Wayne. This series has always been about the fallacy of heroes, how easily they can be destroyed if they lose sight of their mission. Wayne is a shell of himself, and Bane knows it; he wants him to see Gotham crumble before getting the sweet release of death. Bale’s haunted, bruised portrayal of Wayne anchors this movie both emotionally and thematically; when he finally remembers what he once was, and figures out how to “rise” above and become the protector of Gotham once again, the movie reaches its thundering climax, when every element of the Batman story Nolan wanted to tell collides and explodes across Gotham.

It helps that the peerless ensemble of actors assembled here have never been better. Oldman and Freeman are brilliant and Gordon and Fox. Gordon confronts his guilt and tears through the corruption that corroded him to become the pillar of virtue he always was, and Fox adds a reassuring calm, providing even more tools, like the BatJet, for Batman to use.

The newcomers are even better. Hathaway brings comic relief, moral confict and sexuality to Selena Kyle. Catwoman is supposed to be a wild card with a complicated relationship with Batman, and Hathaway, in her best performance since “Rachel Getting Married” is the definitive portrayal of the character. But the best performance in this movie comes from Gordon-Levitt. His trademark naturalism and low-key charm make John Blake a powerful, inspiring character. He is an orphan himself, like Batman, and he sees himself as a kindred spirit. He represents the possibility of hope in the film’s sometimes suffocating darkness. It is unfortunate that Cotillard’s character, in contrast, isn’t well-developed, and a late twist at the end doesn’t register enough to galvanize her role in the story.

But the film’s initial weaknesses are easy to forgive in the story’s colossal achievements. “Rises” closes out the trilogy on a major high because it brings the story full-circle; Batman is a symbol of justice that can never be corrupted. Heroism in the age of terror is more necessary than ever; this trilogy will be remembered for years to come because it bridges the gap between escapism and the all too real.

Grade: A-

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